Inside the one-ton, history-making King Kong Broadway musical

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Oct 8, 2018, 12:30 PM EDT

Eighty-five years after first leaving an indelible footprint the streets of Manhattan, King Kong is returning to Broadway — and this time, the producers promising New Yorkers a spectacle unlike any other are confident that they have the tools they need to keep the great ape under control.

It helps that now, King Kong is a puppet. Not that it makes the show any less impressive.

The Melbourne-based Global Creature Technology produced its first iteration of the King Kong musical five years ago, earning acclaim and international curiosity during a short run on the Australian stage. Then came years of development and reworking of the show's story, which was considered the weak link in the first run; the new show maintains the contours of the classic tale, with a new book and script by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child writer Jack Thorne. Now, the $35 million production is in previews at the Broadway Theatre on 53rd Street in Manhattan, introducing New Yorkers to a new version of the massive monkey that has long served as a sort of unofficial city mascot.

"I think it's an entirely different show. It's still very connected to the original [movie], but it's a much clearer and richer version of what we did in Australia," explains Peter England, who designed the sets and has been with the musical King Kong from its conception. "There are a few bits and pieces left, the King's still here and still holding court. But it's a lot clearer and more interesting musically and emotionally deeper."

While there has been no shortage of big screen tellings of the Kong saga since his debut in Merian C. Cooper's iconic 1933 film, this is the first time real New Yorkers will come face-to-face with the legendary beast. Though in this case, "beast" seems a bit harsh — Global Creature's puppet may be far and away the largest in Broadway history, but with the help of an enormous rig, ten on-stage puppeteers, an array of microprocessors, and tiny motors that power nuanced movements in every one of his facial features, this new Kong is in many ways as expressive and human as his flesh and blood co-stars.

"When he's still, between his expressions and the way he breathes, he is so realistic that sometimes I get a little overwhelmed," says Christiani Pitts, who plays a more modern and empowered version of Ann Darrow in the show. "I feel like he's gonna come alive and it gets really scary."

SYFY WIRE spoke with many of the show's chief creative department heads and the show's (human) star to get a closer look at how Kong — and the rest of the massive production — were brought to life.

King Kong Musical

Credit: Joan Marcus

Building the King

Global Creature Technology (and its spinoff, Creature Technology Co.) has spent years creating large animatronic animals for stage shows, including the touring productions Walking With Dinosaurs and How to Train Your Dragon. But the specs here are truly next-level: The Kong puppet stands 20 feet tall, weighs 2000 pounds, and is wired with 985 feet of electrical cable and 1500 connections. His face alone is powered by 15 industrial servo motors, which were used on NASA's Mars rovers, for maximum expressiveness.

The electric elements — including the massive rig disc that suspends the ape like a super-sized marionette — are all controlled remotely by a team of three puppeteers, known collectively as the voodoo operators, stationed in a booth in the back of the theater.

The monster puppet's architecture is as technologically advanced as its wiring. Kong is built on a space steel skeleton, with a fiberglass form, carbon fiber skull, and inflatable bag musculature; his limbs, meanwhile, are inflatable tubes, overlaid with a kind of soft artificial skin that blends verisimilitude with dreamy fantasy, giving the impression of reality but remaining distinct from anything you might see in a zoo. The inflatable muscles and limbs, though robust to the viewer's eye, are actually a bit like bean bags, pliable yet sturdy and filled with lightweight micro-material.

"If there's a little tear one day and white beads fall out," explains Jacob Williams, the lead voodoo operator, "that's what we call Kong blood."

And if Kong blood is drawn, there are "doctors" on the premises to help patch him up; the big guy sometimes requires more care than a daily check-up, and attentive care is especially essential with the company's main workshop stationed all the way in Melbourne. In New York, there are no spare ape arms or legs on site (we asked), let alone extra heads, so invasive procedures are sometimes required.

"You can peel back his skin by opening up zippers or clips, and they can go under his arms and get right inside under his armpits," Williams explains. "They can undo a little zip on the back of his head and get into his head, as well."

Controlling Kong

All that wear and tear is natural, given the sheer number of moving parts and the breadth of Kong's activity. The massive moving disc above the stage attaches to Kong via rigging points on both shoulders. Each rigging point has three wires, two serving as insurance in case the main cable weakens or snaps. Williams is in charge of the body movements, the shoulders and joints moving up and down. He considers his job operating Kong's "nervous system," and he's joined in the voodoo booth by two other puppeteers, one who controls the head and neck and another who handles the facial movements, which Williams refers to as the "emotions."

"The face has 16 microprocessors, which create all the expressions in his face and are very responsive," Williams says. "The golden rule for the voodoo puppeteers is that we're always manipulating at least three axes at once. So it's not just up-down movement, which can look very mechanical."

To a person, everyone that works on the show marveled at the monster's eyes, which are deep black and entirely engrossing. The eyes can even be dangerous, in so much that they entrance to the point of distraction. Pitts says the number one rule to working with a one-ton gorilla puppet is to always be aware of its entire body, on a moment-by-moment basis.

"His eyes are so captivating that you just want to constantly make eye contact with him," Pitts says, laughing. "But you do have to be cautious of his entire physical shape at all times, to make sure that his limbs don't come crashing somewhere they're not supposed to. It's a good problem to have, because you're constantly engaged in producing such truthful work, because he's so massive and dangerous."

The voodoo crew is assisted by 10 puppeteers, collectively known as the King's Company, who control sweeping movements of limbs and appendages with large rods whilst operating in his shadow, their black uniforms helping them melt into the scenery. Kong runs, leaps, fights, and displays emotional vulnerability, smashing and retreating as his journey from the jungle to Depression-era New York unfolds.

The director of the show, Drew McOnie, talks about the mechanical monster as if he just another cast member.

"The way that we've been working his character into the story is very new, because the creature himself is a very versatile actor," McOnie says. "He's very nuanced and he responds very well to new directions, so it's been a real joy."

The voodoo operators communicate with the King's Company through radio earpieces, a constant one-way dialogue that helps sync up the monkey's movements. The choreography took months to nail down due to the interconnectedness of each step, which requires over a dozen people to work together to create a breathing single organism.

"Marrying a sequence like a run, where they've got to run for 'X' amount of seconds or 15 steps, and having everything in sync, the head motion is moving forward and the spine is undulating and the limbs are in perfect gait in reaction to what the feet are doing, that's the very first thing we did [in rehearsals]," Williams says. "I also have a visual of the whole picture so I can let them know, the left paw is just a little too far left or right, or if we need to improvise a moment because something else has happened onstage."

King Kong Musical Ann Darrow

Credit: Joan Marcus

The King's Company is trained to work with the momentum of the giant puppet. There's a scene in which Kong wakes up and chases Ann Darrow, and at one point, he jumps into the air and lands yards away. It's impossible to be absolutely precise with something that big and heavy, and so everything on stage was built to compensate for and complement the monkey marionette's massive size. And compared to many shows, the physical stage is a bit sparse, in part to make room for Kong and never overshadow his mass.

Designing New York

England says that his sets take inspiration from the rise of Manhattan skyscrapers amidst the Great Depression, both in the architecture and art style. The show begins at the start of the Empire State Building's construction; at the end, of course, Kong ascends to the completed tower's spire. Much of the set is projected from above, to allow the crew to manipulate the ape's intimidation factor — as if a 20-foot-tall, one-ton monster needs to be any scarier.

"We play with perspective and architecture in the projected content, as it relates to the structure of the built street elements on stage," England says. "Because we're not trying to be overly naturalistic with Kong, all of the projected imagery looks like it's painted, been done by hand. It's not photographs of realistic things. It's absolutely recognizable but it's got a textural painted finish that in a way looks a bit old, 1930s movie in its tones and colors."

England hadn't designed the projected content on the Melbourne version of the show and, with a hometown audience watching, he's been conscientious of making sure the sets are all geographically and chronologically appropriate. Manhattan's grid and traffic flow make it impossible to fudge precise locations or travel routes.

The trip is relatively simple: Kong moves from the fictional theater down Broadway, hanging a left a 34th Street and proceeding to 5th Avenue, where the new Empire State Build rises above the city. It's the same route he'd take out of the real theater today.

"The most important thing to me is I don't want anyone from New York City to say, 'Wait a minute. He couldn't have got there that way.' There was one point we had a version of Times Square, and they'd gone and put in some imagery of Radio City Musical Hall, but you can't do that."

That's a nuanced call, which made it more doable than a lot of the decisions that had to be made during the prep for the show. They were forced to choose many of the foundational elements earlier on in the process than usual, because of the sheer amount of prep work that was required to customize such an unusual show.

"This is a production that has easily taken five times as long in all departments," McOnie said. "Not only because the technical requirements of the show are extraordinary and unlike any other show I've ever done before. We had a three room studio downtown, for dancing and music and acting rehearsals, and then 11 blocks uptown, a studio for the animatronics and the animation of the puppet."

King Kong Musical

Credit: Matthew Murphy

King's Co-stars

The division was felt in rehearsals, as well. It's rare that the two leads of a production spend much of the rehearsal time apart, especially when so much of the show is about their relationship. But it's even more rare that one of the co-stars is a 20-foot-tall animatronic ape, so understandably, concessions had to be made.

Curt James, who was slated to provide the voice of Kong during the show, also acted as a (much smaller) stand-in for the puppet during rehearsals so that Pitts could have a scene partner; it was also helpful for figuring out the spacing on the stage, though the puppet inevitably presented unforeseen challenges. (John Hoche has taken over as the voice of Kong.) The small, nuances interactions had to be adjusted, for one, but this version of Ann Darrow is not simply reliant on Kong for her cues.

While the original iteration of the character cast her as an aspiring actress and then damsel in distress, this modern version of the show presents an equally modern Ann Darrow. Back in the '30s, when the original film was made, Hollywood peddled escapism, Pitts says, resulting in "a caricature of a woman who was always really pretty, and always put together, and always happy."

While the show is still set in that era, this Ann Darrow does not follow that kind of polished fantasy, does not scream when Carl Denham tells her to scream.

"There are so many constraints that she is forced to fit in and you watch her constantly try to break those chains and try to break those molds," Pitts says. "There are moments where she's not very pretty and not very strong, but she's constantly fighting to keep herself alive. She has higher plans for herself, and it's really fun to watch her have these larger than life dreams, and then meet someone who's actually larger than life and watch how that relationship unfolds."

Pitts, whose largest Broadway role before this came with another New York story, A Bronx Tale, is still a bit astounded by the size of the production and her place in it.

"The other day, I was pinned underneath Kong's hand, which is humongous and heavy. And we were approaching midnight, and I just looked up to the ceiling of the theater and said, 'This is unlike anything I have ever done in my entire life.'" Pitts relayed, laughing. "And if you would have told me five years ago that at midnight I would be standing under a 20-foot puppet trying to find character beats, I wouldn't believe you."

King Kong is now in previews at the Broadway Theater.